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'Not to tolerate landlessness beyond 2012'

Oct 22, 2008

A country that lacks leaders who can engage with people to listen to their grievances and address them within a democratic framework is civilisationally bankrupt, says Ekta Parishad leader P.V. Rajagopal in an interview to OneWorld South Asia. Leading the landless to fight for their rights, he foresees a grand struggle ahead to keep the government on its toes.

Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh: P.V. Rajagopal is a charismatic leader and founder of Ekta Parishad, a Gandhian organisation. He was born in southern Indian state of Kerala in 1948. At his young age, he pursued his interest in performing art and became an accomplished Kathakali dancer.

Inspired by Gandhian philosophy, he joined his mentor S.N. Subbarao in Sevagram and studied agricultural science.

In the early 1970s, he was instrumental in persuading the rebels of Chambal Valley in Madhya Pradesh to surrender and worked towards their rehabilitation.

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He has been working for the rights of dalits and adivasis for a long time now. Last year he had led a massive march of 25,000 landless people to Delhi. Known as Janadesh 2007, the march from Gwalior to Delhi was much appreciated and succeeded in forcing the Indian government to announce slew of measures to address the problems of landless in the country.

He spoke to OneWorld South Asia in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh during a national-level dialogue on land issue held on October 18-19.

Here are the excerpts:

OWSA: You are commemorating the first anniversary of Janadesh 2007. Tell us about the achievements and failures in this period of one year.

P.V. Rajagopal: We had been engaged in a big struggle that went on for close to three decades starting from 1980 and continued till 2007. Last year we brought out a Janadesh rally that began from Gwalior and culminated in Delhi.

There have been some positive developments since then. For instance, the government at the centre announced the Forest Rights Act. The government has also brought about certain changes in the resettlement and rehabilitation policy, as well as in Land Acquisition Act. But the most important decision that the government took after Janadesh was to form a committee to draft a national land policy. By December end, it should be able to finish its work.

Our main objective for insisting on a national land policy was to

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force the government to clearly determine and demarcate as to how much land would go to different government agencies and how much to the common people. What is happening now is that the government is distributing thousands of acres of land to private companies, but there is no talk of what the people are going to get. To that extent, we have been successful in attaining what we have set out to do.

OWSA: It’s all about success. What has been the biggest challenge?

PVR: Let me also tell you that for last one year, our struggles are mainly focused on how to get these laws implemented on the ground. In this country making law on paper is easy but to implement it on the ground is a gargantuan task.

One of the reasons for this is that implementing agencies have been completely corrupted. Therefore it has become extremely difficult to reach out to the poor through the same agencies.

To make the government machinery moving, there has to be adequate pressure from below. There is also need to remain in constant dialogue with the government so as to maintain pressure on it.

OWSA: How difficult has the struggle around land become with the advent of multinational companies and other private entities with their loads of capital to influence government decisions?

PVR: Land struggle has become extremely complex in the present context. It’s like someone is bleeding and you are still giving him vitamin pills. What use are these vitamin pills, when a person is bleeding profusely? This kind of situation is truly worrisome.

OWSA: Can you elaborate?

PVR: What is happening here is somewhat akin to what has happened in Brazil, where about 80% of rural population is forced to live in urban slums. All their lands have been given to big corporations for corporate farming, which are using them to cultivate biofuels like jatropha. In India too, we are witnessing the same trend.

In a democracy you can force governments to do something only under public pressure. Unless there is a widespread movement for change, nothing is possible. We tell the government that last year we came to Delhi with 25,000 and that was only a trial. If you don’t listen to us, we will storm the capital with 100,000 people. And they will stay put there until their demands are met.

We have already started preparing for a showdown in 2012. This does not mean that we will sit idle during this time. We will continue to fight the battle at village, taluka, district and state levels.

Dialogue with the government will also continue. Therefore the pressure on government will remain throughout to fulfill the promises made to people by announcing various policies. We want to keep the government on its toes. We want to warn the government that we will not tolerate this beyond 2012.

OWSA: What could be the first steps?

PVR: Unless there is fair and equitable distribution of wealth and land in this country, the people are going to remain helpless. If the government is serious it can immediately start distributing that land, which is less disputable. For instance, there should be no difficulty in giving people residential pattas. Likewise, it can regularise all illegally occupied land and work towards speedy disposal of cases involving land disputes.

The only problematic area is when it comes to reducing the ceiling limits. Radical processes can be taken up later, whereas less disputable land can immediately be dealt with.

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In Bihar and other places, for instance, the musahar (rat eaters) community is rotting on the roadside. Who stops the government from giving them land to build their huts? But for a country that has decided to let the poor die, a country that has decided it will work only in the interest of liquor mafias and other powerful people, a country that wins elections utilising their money, it becomes even more difficult a task to make it work for the poor.

OWSA: Is there any hope?

PVR: Ekta Parishad is trying to work with like-minded organisations to make the voices of the poor heard in the corridors of power. It is with this objective we are meeting in Gwalior to commemorate the first anniversary, as well as to ponder over and announce future strategies.

Land issue has an international context these days. In Africa, Latin America, Asia, everywhere we see a similar trend. Land, water and forests are being transferred to multinational companies to earn profits. All governments the world over are working towards enhancing the facilities for the rich to live a luxurious life. People living on the margins are not their concern. We want to reverse this trend.

OWSA: Yesterday representatives from different states were recounting their experiences. What do you make out of such depressing accounts? Or do you see a light at the end of the tunnel?

PVR: It was both depressing and encouraging. The positive aspect is that people have now become more self-confident. They now feel they have the power to fight anyone. There can be nothing more dangerous than losing hope in life. Janadesh 2007 has been able to infuse that hope in people.

Another encouraging achievement is the support that we have been able to garner from the middle class to the struggles of the poor. Before this happened, we were almost convinced that the conscience of middle class was long dead. It is good to know that it had not completely died. That the government had enacted the Forest Rights Act within two and a half months of Janadesh rally was a no mean achievement.

However things on the ground are not moving at a desired speed and that certainly is frustrating. Poverty that can be removed in four to five years is still around. We are certainly depressed that this process is painfully slow. We celebrate 60 years of independence, we also celebrate the centenary of satyagraha, we take pride in unfurling the Indian flag at any given opportunity and yet we fail to see how much hollowness is there inside. Changing this picture of poverty, of hunger, of corruption is the ultimate objective of Ekta Parishad.

We particularly want the younger generation to try out the path of non-violence and peace to resolve this crisis before they decide to take up arms.

OWSA: Do you think the government is responsive to peaceful movements?

PVR: You are right that governments have not shown much inclination to listen to peaceful movements. This, however, is not to suggest that they have become used to understanding only the language of violence. All I am saying is that this is symptomatic of a lazy system. Of a system that produces politicians, who do not have capabilities to argue, to think, to understand, to read.

A country that lacks leaders devoid of such basic attributes required

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in a democracy is only waiting for legitimate grievances of people to take violent turns so that it has a justification to use force against them.

Our politicians have to learn the science of dialogue and mediation. By not talking to non-violent movements they are only encouraging the violence. A government, which believes that more and more police and military is the only way to ensure security is civilisationally bankrupt.

OWSA: Ekta Parishad is perceived as a secular and non-party organisation, which has no communal leanings or electoral aspirations. How do you then justify providing a platform to the leader (Shivraj Singh Chouhan) of a party known for its rabidly communal politics?

PVR: First, you have to talk to the chief minister of the state in which you are working. Whoever they are or whichever political party they belong to, you have to talk. After all, they are the ones making and implementing policies. We are not a party; we are not a government. And we want the poor to be heard. Therefore I have to talk to Shivraj Singh Chouhan.

If the people have elected him as the chief minister, we have to be ready for dialogue with him. There is no point denying the reality that he has emerged from a democratic process. Our duty is to make the party in power accountable to people. And one way of doing this is to make them say many things publicly. We have to separate the character of an individual from his political affiliations. Sometimes a right individual gets caught in a wrong party.

Therefore I always look for individuals who have some sensitivity for the people’s cause. That does not mean that we never enter into any confrontation with such people or parties.

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